24 September 2008


At the weekend I caught up with Former Flatmate Kath and Lauren in the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury, chosen for its prettiness and its convenient location, given that Lauren was coming from Wales, Kath from a friend's place in Oxford, and I was venturing out from London.

Shrewsbury is a market town encircled by the winding River Severn, and it boasts a wide range of Tudor architecture, an impressive abbey and beautiful parklands. It's also famous as the boyhood home of great Salopians (as the locals are apparently called) Charles Darwin and Clive of India... and Michael Palin went to school there too.

I arrived a little before nine o'clock on Friday night, having taken the train from Euston after work and waiting on the bleak Platform 1 at Wolverhampton station for half an hour for my connection. Our first destination was the local cinema: given the choice of two films, Tropic Thunder or Pineapple Express, I requested the latter. This turned out to be a decision that paid rather mixed dividends. While I thought the film was passably amusing nonsense, at least until the saggy last reel in which the quality levels declined rapidly, the ladies were even less impressed. Turns out their laughter during the screening was along the lines of, 'I can't believe I'm laughing at a film this dumb!' Still, I have a soft spot for the movie's co-stars Seth Rogen and James Franco from their days in the superb-but-cancelled TV series Freaks And Geeks.

We stayed at the pleasant Sydney House B&B in a quiet area north of the train station, and enjoyed the breakfast on offer the next morning. Saturday was a consistently superb day, with bright sunshine, clear blue skies and balmy autumn weather, and we certainly made the most of it. We spent the morning exploring the town, with Kath & Lauren acting as tour guides because they had spent several hours in town on Friday afternoon before I arrived. Kath was able to confirm that Shrewsbury sadly lacked a sticky strawberry jam centre, but then I suppose you can't have everything. (Yeah... if you're not from New Zealand, that reference won't make any sense).

In the sun-dappled graveyard behind the clean lines of St Chad's church we noted a gravestone marked in honour of Ebeneezer Scrooge: a 1984 telemovie of A Christmas Carol starring George C Scott was filmed in Shrewsbury and the engraved headstone was left in situ in the graveyard as a memento (right, bottom of the picture). Here's a quick video of the yard to give you an idea:

After a quick look inside the church (see above) we ambled through the town's pretty riverside park, which is known as The Quarry for its industrial origins: aside from extracting rocks, the broad crescent of the eastern bank of the Severn was used for smelly tanneries until the early 19th century. Now it's a grand spot for a picnic, and horticulturalists can enjoy the elaborate gardens of the Dingle, which was built by famed TV gardener Percy Thrower. Readers of a certain age will recall that any plant-related joke in Buster comic or on The Two Ronnies that wasn't about David Bellamy tended to be about Percy. In the broad expanses of The Quarry we practiced our own version of yogic flying in an effort to bring about world peace or at the very least raise an appetite for lunch. This was sated in a small but funky cafe where we enjoyed hearty fare such as thick-breaded sandwiches and heaping salads; the proprietress was playing a Fat Freddys [sic] Drop CD too, which shows the all-conquering range of Wellington-based barbecue reggae.

After lunch we strolled across the English Bridge to visit Shrewsbury Abbey, parts of which date from early Norman times. In one corner of the nave lies an effigy of Roger de Montgomery, who was William the Conqueror's second-in-command at the Battle of Hastings.

Then we joined a walking tour of the town and learned a bit about its churches and famous inhabitants. One unfortunate chap is commemorated by a plaque on St Mary's Church - he attempted to 'fly' down a rope secured to the spire of the church. The enscribed poem reads:

Let this small Monument record the name
Of CADMAN, and to future times proclaim
How by'n attempt to fly from this high spire
Across the Sabrine stream he did acquire
His fatal end. 'Twas not for want of skill
Or courage to perform the task he fell:
No, no, a faulty Cord being drawn too tight
Hurried his Soul on high to take her flight
Which bid the Body here beneath good Night
Feb.ry 2nd 1739 aged 28.

According to the guide, Cadman's wife and children were present and witnessed the family breadwinner meet his sad end, but immediately following the dramatic demise they sprang into action and passed a hat around to collect for the funeral.

Pride of place in front of the former home of the Shrewsbury School is reserved for a statue of a thoughtful-looking Charles Darwin, who studied at the school as a youth. While he didn't return to Shrewsbury to live in his later life, preferring the leafy domains of Kent, the town is proud to claim its stake in his upbringing. And while it's nothing to do with Shrewsbury, New Zealand can claim its own role in the Great Evolutionist's life: witness the famous correspondence of Englishman Samuel Butler - sometime Canterbury runholder and author of Erewhon - with The Press of Christchurch in 1862, offering a favourable and erudite review of Darwin's On The Origin Of Species. A clipping of Butler's New Zealand review made its way to Darwin, who was tickled that his thinking was understood and endorsed by a skilled writer in a faraway young colony. Darwin pointed this out in his correspondence:

This Dialogue, written by some [sic] quite unknown to Mr. Darwin, is remarkable from its spirit and from giving so clear and accurate a view of Mr. D. [sic] theory. It is also remarkable from being published in a colony exactly 12 years old, in which it might have [sic] thought only material interests would have been regarded.

Soon it was time for us to bid farewell to Shrewsbury and return to our various abodes. So, in summary, if you have a day to spare in the Welsh Marches, Shrewsbury comes highly recommended. Just make sure to bring your own jammy biscuits with you.

Tourism: Shropshire Tourism
Tourism: Visit Shrewsbury
History: Darwin Online
More photos: Facebook

15 September 2008

Guardian angels sung this strain

BBC Proms in the Park
Hyde Park
13 September 2008

Each year since 1895 classical music buffs have enjoyed a series of summer concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in a programme of performances that have grown into a national institution. While the Proms are a broad survey of classical music both old and new, the famous Last Night of the Proms is a well-deserved knees-up that has taken on epic proportions. Tickets for the main event inside the Albert Hall cannot be had for love nor money, but the organisers sensibly broadened the Last Night audience in response to public demand, and now there are four outdoor concerts on the Last Night - this year in Hyde Park, Swansea, Glasgow and Belfast, one in each of the home nations. And on Saturday I was lucky enough to attend the Proms in the Park performance in Hyde Park with Felix and her gang.

In previous years I've enjoyed watching the Last Night on television not simply because of the quality of the music being performed, although some of the best artists and orchestras are involved. It has become something of a British national institution, an evening of revelry that marks the symbolic end of the summer idyll, and probably the one time each year that millions of people have anything to do with classical music. Me included, I should add: I generally like the stuff when I hear it, but most days I prefer the tried and true guitars and verse-chorus-verse. The organisers know this, and when they plan their programmes there's definitely a strong impetus towards popular and easily accessible material.

The venue in Hyde Park was the same spot on which I'd attended the Wireless Festival with Al back in July - a broad expanse of perfectly flat grass in the eastern reaches of the park near Marble Arch. Five hours of entertainment commenced with Bellowhead, a 12-piece big band combo that took my fancy with their jigs, reels and exuberant volume. They were followed by a short set by four rather bland show-tune blokes who call themselves Teatro, who aim their microphones squarely at the Grans market. Oh dear, they're doing Music Of The Night and something from The Lion King. Next, please.

Hooray, it's professional Abba impersonators Björn Again! I'm not afraid to confess a long-held admiration for the Swedish pop gods, although don't play Dancing Queen at me as radio programmers have spent decades thrashing it to death at every opportunity. Björn Again put on a good show, complete with cod-Scandinavian accents and frankly vertiginous white boots on 'Frida' and 'Agnetha'. Of course, how are we to know that this is the real Björn Again; after all, there are five acts touring the world under the franchise name. Perhaps the aplomb with which they handle a faulty backing tape, requiring a nerve-wracking a capella performance of Voulez-Vous, was proof enough that these copyists are talented performers in their own right. And 50 percent of them wear really short outfits, which never did Bucks Fizz any harm either.

Then it was time to move on to the classical performances. The avuncular compere, Sir Terry Wogan, introduced the BBC Concert Orchestra, and brought out comedian Sue Perkins (formerly of Mel & Sue's Late Lunch fame in the late 90s), the guest conductor and winner of BBC2's Maestro competition. She had bested the two runners-up in the competition: the unlikely duo of drum 'n bass stalwart Goldie and the actress and former Macca girlfriend Jane Asher. Perkins is a good sort, and it was great to see her performing so well in front of a huge live audience - this portion of the show was being broadcast live on TV and radio across the UK. She conducted the talented soprano Lesley Garrett, who trilled winsomely to good effect. After a zesty violin performance by the pony-tailed (and not related to the previous performer) David Garrett, a professional conductor was brought in and none other than the legendary tenor Jose Carreras strode forth to give a powerful yet graceful performance of a series of Neapolitan pieces. Snappy dresser, senor.

To keep the punters' attention the programme shifted popwards again with a set from Sharleen Spiteri, the former front-woman of Scottish rock band Texas, who has now gone solo with a collection of 60s R&B-inflected Winehousian pop songs. She belted through a series of her old material and a few new songs too, which are catchy enough, but erred in opting to perform The Clash's Should I Stay Or Should I Go in a hokey twanged-up version that veered unhappily close to line-dancing music. Other than that, Spiteri gave a decent performance, and with her hair tied back doesn't she look just like Kate Bush? No? Anyone...?

Then it was time to get all 21st-century and send the satellites into overdrive with a massive linkup to perform an avant-garde (i.e. tuneless) piece by a young composer. While it proved to be a bit cacophonous, I liked the idea of a single piece of music being played by five sets of musicians in five different locations. I think it worked as planned, although I'm not sure if the afore-mentioned lack of a decent tune was intentional or merely the result of a broadcast lag.

After that it was straight back into the Old Stuff, which is what most of the attendees are there for. In Hyde Park plenty of the concert-goers were already decked out in a garish array of Union Flags, potentially dodgy St George crosses, ill-advised Union Flag top-hats, and frankly abysmal glowing neon bunny ears, devil's horns or Timmy Mallett specs. Yes folks, it's your big chance to be patriotic AND zany in one fell swoop! Spare me...

In the Albert Hall the booming voice of Welsh bass baritone Bryn Terfel saws through a folk song medley, ending in Molly Malone ('Alive, alive-o...'). Then the anticipation levels rocket as Elgar's Pomp And Circumstance flutters towards the grand finale, when the big guns come out...

Boom! 'Land of Hope and Glory'

Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free,
How shall we extol thee, who are born of thee?
Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.
God, who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.

Boom! 'Rule, Britannia!' This is the cue for massive flag-waving and plenty of inebriated shouting along to the chorus by the massed crowd in Hyde Park. Despite the words being twenty feet high on the massive screen, no-one sings the verses; they only love the chorus. And yet I note they don't even sing the proper words in the chorus either:

Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never will be slaves!


Rule, Britannia! Britannia rules the waves
Britons never-never-never shall be slaves!

I gave up trying to analyse this, because next it was...

Boom! 'Jerusalem' How many famous literary allusions can you count? Dark satanic mills? Check! Chariots of fire? Check! England's green and pleasant land? Check! Of course, the notion that Jesus may have visited Glastonbury with his wandering uncle Joseph runs strictly counter to the avowedly cursed climate of that same Somerset town, given that even to this day every summer thousands of people journey from across the world to Glastonbury in order to be swamped in a sea of putrid mud.

Finally, it's time to close the flag-waving boisterous pageant with a solemn rendition of the plodding God Save The Queen, which some rare elements of the crowd attempt to wave flags in time to, but more use the opportunity to make a dash for the exits to beat the crowds. But wait, fireworks! Not in the Albert Hall, mind - that would be quite a fire hazard. We gazed upwards as the stage in Hyde Park was haloed with a fusillade of rockets bursting above us, signalling an explosive end to a highly enjoyable night's entertainment.

BBC: Why are there so few female conductors?
Guardian: The only Asian in the audience
Youtube: Late Lunch trailer (1:02)

12 September 2008


There’s a Melbourne group I’m keen on, My Friend The Chocolate Cake, who released an excellent album of orchestral pop music called Brood in 1994. One of the more obscure tracks on that album is the moody song ‘Aberystwyth’, which has the feel of a ballad written by an Australian grandson for his Welsh emigrant grandparents. I was also familiar with the entry in Douglas Adams and John Lloyd's book 'The Meaning of Liff', a dictionary of borrowed placenames, which defined Aberystwyth as 'a nostalgic yearning which is in itself more pleasant than the thing being yearned for'.

Several years later in 1998 I visited the town itself briefly while touring Wales, but didn’t stay long enough to get a feel for the place. But this time around, my pal Lauren from Wellington happens to be doing her PhD at the University of Wales in the town, so it was the perfect opportunity for a quick weekend visit to see a little more of Aberystwyth’s isolated charms.

Yes, isolated. Despite its location in the middle of the sweeping expanse of Cardigan Bay, Aberystwyth (‘Aber’ for short) is just about as isolated as you can get in Britain without heading up to the Highlands of Scotland. Not only is it remote from London – it took me four and a half hours to get there by train, and considerably more getting back – but due to the undulations of the valleys and the fragmented history of Welsh railways, it’s also rather remote from both North and South Wales, particularly if you’re relying on public transport.

Upon arrival Lauren took me on a guided tour of town, along the waterfront promenade and through its side streets. We met up with some of her University friends to see The Dark Knight (which I’ve written about here), and paid a quick visit to a pub afterwards.

The next day after a morning stroll through the remains of the old castle we took advantage of the clear (if not balmy) weather to do a bit of walking with Lauren’s pal Tim. The hills surrounding Aber reminded me of the New Zealand countryside – grass that’s greener-than-green, undulating pastures, forest reserves with soaring pines, and sheep aplenty. Welsh sheep are usually allowed to retain their tails, which makes them odd to the eyes of Antipodeans used to sheep without tails (‘moutons sans queues’ – sounds like a menu item in a posh restaurant).

We walked down into a nearby valley and emerged in Clarach Bay, a pretty little stony beach with rival holiday camps sitting glaring at each other across a brook running into the sea. We hiked back around the cliff path to Constitution Hill with fine views overlooking Aber, and then returned down the steep path to the Aber waterfront, where a large collection of getting-on-a-bit line-dancers were shuffling about in front of the bandstand.

That evening we enjoyed some quality fish & chips from a shop near the station and pitched into a group for The Scholars’ pub quiz (which is at a pub called The Scholars, not a pub quiz solely for academics). It was fun, but let’s just say we didn’t set the world on fire! In fact, the most interesting piece of information I learned in Aber didn't arise in the pub quiz - it turns out that the new mayor of Aber, Sue Jones-Davies, is setting out to overturn the town's 30-year-old ban on screening Monty Python's The Life of Brian. And Jones-Davies is right to make overturning the ban a high priority. Not only is it a great film, but she also appeared in it in a famous performance as Judith Iscariot.

The next morning there was time to wander around the fishing port and to walk southwards up nearby Pendinas hill overlooking the town. An Iron Age fort used to occupy the summit of the hill; nowadays it’s only the home of a lonely 19th-century monument to the Duke of Wellington. Rumour has it that the long-running affair of erecting a memorial was meant to be capped off by placing a statue of the imperious general atop the column, but that this plan was aborted when his later premiership tarnished his reputation amongst the locals. Perhaps the extreme winds at the summit may have had something to do with it too – it was hard to stand up at times.

After a tasty café lunch it was time for me to take the train back to London. Well, the train to Birmingham, where I could change to the train for Reading, where I could change to the train for London, if you want to be pedantic. See what I meant about the isolation? It had been a pleasant visit and a great opportunity to both catch up with Lauren and enjoy some of the splendid Welsh countryside. Plus all that fresh sea air came free of charge!

The Meaning of Liff: Probably illegal (but still funny) transcript
News: New role for Python star - lifting ban on Life of Brian
More photos: Facebook

06 September 2008

A month of moving pictures

In the weeks since my return from Russia I’ve managed to grind out the trip reports on the various sections of my July travels – it took me long enough! – and I’ve also managed to spend a bit of time at the cinema, enjoying a few films.

After work one day I met up with Craig and Claire at the Odeon Panton Street near Piccadilly Circus to see the American indie black-and-white comedy romance, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. While its flashes of Kevin Smith-style humour might turn some viewers off, I enjoyed the classic Hollywood screwball romance aspect of the film, in which the protagonists warily circle each other in conversation, never quite sure if the other is a soulmate in waiting or a complete jerk. Or, as is often the way, somewhere in between. And you’ve got to like a movie that ends on New Year’s Day with a bunch of hungover flatmates singing an a capella rendition of the Scorpions’ ‘Winds of Change’ not entirely un-ironically.

A few days later I visited the Prince Charles, the scene of most of my movie-going, to watch Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky. Leigh’s films are usually exquisite kitchen-sink dramas with low-key casts and exhibit a resolute reluctance to pander to the audience by shoe-horning a happy ending in no matter what. His gritty school of social realism has given audiences powerful films like the family day of reckoning Secrets and Lies, and the sensitive yet gripping tale of 1950s abortionist Vera Drake, for which Imelda Staunton won the Bafta for Best Actress in 2005, and received a Best Actress nomination for the Oscars in the same year (losing out to Hilary Swank in the solid but melodramatic Million Dollar Baby). But in Happy-Go-Lucky Leigh has opted for optimism, and in casting the versatile and likeable Sally Hawkins as his lead character Poppy, he chose wisely. Hawkins, who also appeared in Vera Drake, is thoroughly believable as the effervescent primary school teacher Poppy, and it’s a remarkable testament to Hawkins’ acting ability that the bouncy, always-upbeat Poppy doesn’t end up grating and trying the viewers’ patience. Happy-Go-Lucky is entertaining as a portrait of an optimistic young woman who is happy with her life, but also attains greater depth in its depiction of her relationship with a troubled driving instructor with problems of his own. There’s also a scene-stealing turn by Karina Fernandez as a combustible flamenco instructor.

I also jumped at the chance to see a screening of the 2006 New Zealand film No.2, the story of Pacific Island matriarch Nanna Maria and her demand that her family stage one last joyful family gathering at their ex-state house in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill, so she can name her successor as head of the family. The central role is played by veteran American actress Ruby Dee, who has a long and distinguished career and recently came to prominence for her Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2008 for American Gangster. Her role in No.2 garnered her the jury award for Best Actress at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2006, and it’s a testament to her skill that her Polynesian accent was entirely believable (to a Palagi listener like me, at least). The film is a small treat, particularly for those familiar with multi-cultural Auckland, but anyone could enjoy its combination of family drama mixed with a healthy leavening of humour, music and a pinch of romance. I’d have loved to have seen the original stage version with Madeleine Sami a few years back – several people I’ve mentioned the film to saw her performance and found it riveting.

My next film was supposed to be Guy Maddin’s ‘docu-fantasia’ look at his hometown, My Winnipeg. Having enjoyed his wilfully strange and mysterious film festival treat The Saddest Music in the World a few years ago, I was looking forward to a more personal – yet still knowingly absurdist and surreal – take on Manitoba’s finest. Guess I’ll have to wait though, because when I turned up to buy my ticket at the Prince Charles I was told that the print hadn’t been delivered in time for screening. Drat!

A couple of weekends ago I visited Aberystwyth in west Wales (on which, more later) to catch up with Wellington pal Lauren, and we took in the prime Saturday night billing at the town cinema. The Commodore is a low-rise brick construction from the nuclear fallout shelter school of architecture. It has some nice small-town touches, like the snack hatch to the left of the screen at which patrons can purchase more sweets after the adverts and before the main feature runs. We were there to see The Dark Knight, the second Christopher Nolan Batman movie starring Christian Bale in the black suit. Nolan has quite a pedigree, having directed Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige in addition to the two Batman flicks. The Dark Knight has been tearing up the box-office figures in America and around the world, and will soon top US$500 million in the US alone. The producers needed the boffo box-office though: aside from Bale and Heath Ledger, the film also boasted expensive talent like Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman in supporting roles, and actors on the cusp of the A-list like Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Gary Oldman got a lot of screen time too, and he wouldn’t come cheap.

Only the most uncynical of observers would miss the connection between the huge success of the movie and the massive publicity surrounding the sad death of Heath Ledger. But this should not obscure the success of his performance. While it would be an unwise and overly sentimental knee-jerk reaction to nominate Ledger for Best Actor for this role, the fact remains that he inhabits the Joker’s skin with far greater aplomb and verve than Jack Nicholson in the original Batman movies. It’s a top performance. As for the movie itself, it held my attention for most of its length, although the fetishisation of excessive screen violence brought back memories of the similarly flawed V For Vendetta. The Dark Knight was also without a doubt Just Too Long. Perhaps the running length was allowed to spool out because of the money and talent at stake, but at 152 minutes it was a good 20 minutes too long for my liking. That said, aside from the violence I emerged with a favourable impression, and was impressed that Nolan had kept alive a seemingly bankrupt franchise. And as Lauren pointed out, they also fixed the problem of the last Batman by giving his character a voice synthesiser so all his Gotham City pals wouldn’t recognise Bruce Wayne’s voice every time they heard the caped crusader speak!

Lastly, a few days ago I ventured into town to see the French animated film Persepolis, the autobiographical story of Marjane Satrapi, her upbringing in Iran and her eventual move to Europe to escape the growing social and political repression in her homeland. It’s an impressively-produced story worth viewing: aside from the interesting personal tale, and the skilful mixing of wry humour with biting criticism of Iran's slide into intolerance, it's also appealing in that it will educate movie-goers who might not be familiar with the story of the deposing of the Shah and the Iran-Iraq war. Ancient history! Plus it contains an ace Iron Maiden riff illustrating the girl's tennis-racquet guitar solo technique. What more could you ask for? Just make sure you see the subtitled French original rather than the dubbed American re-recording for the sake of authenticity, although Catherine Deneuve plays Marjane’s mother in both the French and American versions. And to be fair, it’s not as if the film’s dialogue was ever in Persian – it’s a French production from the original source material, a graphic novel.

01 September 2008


We last left our heroes bound for St Petersburg on a Finnish train... what adventures awaited them? Read on...

The train carrying us from Helsinki slowed once we switched from Finnish to Russian tracks, so we had time to admire the scenery en route to St Petersburg and the city’s welcoming committee had time to hoover the gigantic red carpets used to welcome all visitors to the city known as the ‘Venice of the North’. (n.b. The bit about the carpets is a lie, but it’s a nice idea, should any city councillors be reading this)

The Russian scenery was little different from the Finnish scenery, actually. Old men strode purposefully along the track-side carrying switches for their afternoon saunas, while young boys sat idly giving the finger to the passing tourist trains. As we neared the fringes of the city we passed numerous outlying train stations full of Russians queuing for local trains to the big city.

Soon we arrived at St Petersburg’s famous Finland Station, as referenced in the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘West End Girls’:

You’ve got a heart of glass or a heart of stone
Just you wait till I get you home
We’ve got no future, we’ve got no past
Here today, built to last
In every city, in every nation
From Lake Geneva to the Finland Station...

Okay, being referenced in a Pet Shop Boys lyric isn’t the station’s prime claim to fame. It was here in April 1917 that Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland to foment revolution and thereby undermine the Russian war effort on the Eastern Front, having been whisked across enemy territory in the notorious Sealed Train. Within six months of Lenin’s arrival the October Revolution had erupted and ushered in Bolshevik control, with Lenin at the head of the new government.

These momentous events are today marked by an exhibit of the steam engine and carriage that transported Lenin. But our attention was focused on more prosaic matters, like getting from the station to our hotel. Steve had booked a transfer but they’d not bothered to show up, and the office hung up whenever we telephoned. As there was no Metro stop near the hotel and we were yet to learn how the bus network functioned, we plumped for a cab, which didn’t cost the earth.

Soon we were ensconced in the suburban Hotel Karelia, which accommodates travellers participating in On The Go tours. Their tour brochure had cautioned us that it was best not to equate Russian hotel star ratings with those in other countries, so we had wondered what sort of dive it might be. But despite its dreary exterior the Karelia proved to be entirely decent. We knew not to drink the tap water, as St Petersburg is built on a massive swamp, but it was still a surprise to see the colour of the tapwater… not to mention its smell… (Note that this is not a complaint against the hotel - it's like that everywhere, apparently)

Soon it was time for our first meeting with our tour guide and with our fellow travellers. Our guide was the eloquent and amiable Artem, a well-travelled sociology graduate with impeccable English and a fondness for the phrase ‘by the way’. As he filled us in on the delights awaiting us, we got to know our fellow travellers: nine Australians in all. Six of these were Queenslanders travelling en masse, linked in a confusing tracery of siblinghood, mateship, marriage engagements and an initially worrying predilection for careers in accountancy. Despite the latter they proved to be excellent company! There was also a mother and daughter team hailing from Melbourne: Sue and Sue’s Mum (yeah, we forgot her name, sorry Sue), and lastly a lady chef from Geelong with a penchant for changing money into every currency imaginable other than Russian roubles, thereby single-handedly securing the financial viability of the Russian money-changing industry.

After a team dinner in the hotel’s restaurant downstairs we New Zealanders retired to our rooms and channel-surfed through the 24 Russian stations on offer until we chanced across a Tri-Nations rugby match between Australia and South Africa, with a Russian commentary. This was enjoyable fare and helped to prove the adage that anything’s better than Murray Mexted.


Peter the Great founded the city that bears his name as a window through which Russia could learn from the ‘civilising’ influences of Western Europe. While he chose to erect this grand city in a rather inopportune location, what with the swamps and yellow water and all, Peter was not a man to be trifled with. He was not content with merely building a smart new capital city of stone to replace smoky, wooden Moscow, or with founding Russia’s first navy in the new port city. He also issued edicts to re-shape Russian society to meet his exacting standards:

After his European tour in 1698, he imposed a ban on beards and personally cut off those of his leading nobles. Russian traditional dress – a loose robe or kaftan – was also outlawed, and ‘German dress’ was adopted. Ladies at court were instructed to adopt the plunging décolletage that Peter had admired on his travels, although the older custom of painting women’s teeth black seems to have survived rather longer than old-fashioned modesty in female attire (John Darwin, ‘After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000’, 2007)

The skies over St Petersburg were grey and laden with rain-showers as we set off in a minibus with Artem to take in some of the sights of the city. We saw old women in headscarves bustling around worshipping icons in the gilded church of St Nikolai’s; we admired the gaudy domes of the Church of the Spilled Blood; and while on the riverside we admired the Cruiser Aurora, the ship that sparked the October Revolution in 1917. Then it was time to enjoy a smorgasbord lunch, one of the few affordable dining options available on the expensive grand thoroughfare, the Nevsky Prospekt.

After lunch and a little more sight-seeing we readied ourselves for what I hoped would be the highlight of our visit to St Petersburg: a visit to the world-class collections of the famous Hermitage Museum, Catherine the Great’s most lasting contribution to the pantheon of architecture gracing the city. The French word hermitage means ‘a hermit’s abode’ or ‘a lonely place’, but the Hermitage is far from simple or rustic. It vies with the Louvre in Paris as one of the world’s great museums housed in one of the world’s most sumptuous and glittering palaces. Its collections hold thousands of artworks of astonishing variety and incalculable value, and the building itself has played host to a myriad of key moments in Russian history.

While the spectacle of the Hermitage was awe-inspiring, the practicalities of the visit left much to be desired. Understandably, given it was Sunday afternoon, the museum was crowded and stuffy. Unfortunately our guide, Olga, was very knowledgeable but paced our journey through the many wings of the museum poorly, so as the 5 o’clock closing time neared it became obvious that we were going to miss seeing some key staterooms, and we had to hot-foot it through whole sections of the art collections. Lucky I’m not much of a fan of French Impressionism then, because we did those rooms at a run!

One way to savour the Hermitage experience at leisure is to watch Alexander Sokurov’s 2002 masterwork, the film Russian Ark, which filled me with awe at the Wellington Film Festival a few years ago. Not only is it a beautiful and interesting trawl through the history of this grand palace, it also holds a special place in cinema history. This complicated yet elegant film depicts 33 rooms of the Hermitage and features over 2000 actors in period costume, but the truly remarkable thing about the act of filming it is that Russian Ark was filmed in a SINGLE shot. The longest shot in the history of cinema. There are no cuts. This astonishing piece of cinematic history has to be seen to be believed.

That evening we convened at the Nikolayevsky Palace for a Cossack folk show put on for the throngs of tourists swarming over St Petersburg. Starting out with an eight-strong male voice choir with impressive booming vocals, the programme moved on to Cossack dances, often with comic overtones, with much flirting and prat-falling and plenty of handkerchief and/or scarf flinging. In the second half after the audience was topped up with Russian champagne and vodka the troupe returned with a jovial display of how to play accordions of increasingly small size, from a giant behemoth down to a minuscule squeaker, and finishing with a novelty accordion shaped like a boot. Sure it was cheesy entertainment, but it was great fun.

Left to our own devices, we ventured into an Azeri restaurant that had been recommended to us for dinner after the show, but the meal didn’t go so well, with some orders mixed up (Queenslander Louise was damn well going to be served a tonic water whether she wanted one or not!) and our tip proving not to their liking. I managed to lose my coat check chit, so was lucky to get my rain-jacket out of their clutches, but the guy behind the counter kindly relented, and would have been justified to think me a daft tourist. How hard is it to keep hold of a coat check chit?

After a bit of navigational debate and a decent walk down a rain-slicked Nevsky Prospekt we finally caught a minibus back to hotel for something like 20 pence, and called it a day as the clock approached midnight.


The next morning in the hotel restaurant we marvelled at the Russian chap starting his day with a cup of coffee and a shot of vodka. The day started out rainy but fined up as the morning progressed. It was to be another day of minibus touring around the city, visiting palaces and admiring canals and parks, assuming we could actually see them through the blizzard of Russian newlyweds having their picture taken.

(A note on Russian weddings: everyone getting married in Russia seems to cram their ceremony into the warm summer months, and afterwards they all seem to hit the town in stretched white limos to have their pictures taken in front of historic sites. Consequently, we seldom walked a single block in St Petersburg and Moscow without running into another wedding party. It was nearly the end of the trip until we finally espied a groom in a dark suit, the preference seemingly being for cream or white, and bonus points go to Steve, who spotted the altogether rare sight of a stretched Corvette limo!)

Our first stop for the morning was the Peter and Paul Fortress, established by Peter the Great in 1703 in a prime location overlooking the Neva. For generations it served as a prison for political detainees who fell foul of the autocratic Tsars and their secret police, including the writer Fyodor Dostoevsky of ‘Crime and Punishment’ fame.

Within the fortress the small but elegant Peter and Paul Cathedral serves as the resting place of almost all of the Russian tsars. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great are both buried here, with dignified marble tombs above their resting places. In an annex to the side lie the tombs of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas II and his family, who were laid to rest here in 1998 after decades of confusion and Soviet misinformation about the location of their remains.

Just outside the cathedral I was surprised to run into a former colleague from the Competition Commission. Luckily David, who visits Russia every year for the ballets, is a thorough gentleman, because I called him ‘John’ by mistake, such was my surprise at seeing him out of context.

Next it was back on board the minibus for a visit to St Isaac’s Cathedral in the centre of the city. This splendid neo-classical exterior and baroque interior took 40 years to construct and was the largest church in Russia when it was completed in 1858. (It’s thought that the cathedral’s design greatly influenced the design for the Capitol Building in Washington DC). The Soviets later chose to make an example of St Isaac’s and converted it into a museum of atheism, and also used its impressive interior for vast physics experiments using a Foucault pendulum, which were witnessed by huge crowds. Nowadays it’s not a fully-functioning Orthodox cathedral, but some chapels are open and services occur on key dates.

We then paused for lunch amongst the fallen splendour of the now slightly threadbare Polovtsev Mansion in the central city, and enjoyed its set menu of borscht, tasty beef stroganoff and delicious icecream for dessert. I didn’t relish the borscht, or the knock-down powerful vodka that accompanied the meal, but I did my best!

The afternoon was occupied by a trip to the suburbs to stroll in the historic Peterhof gardens in the warm Russian sunshine. Peterhof, known as ‘the Russian Versailles’, was constructed by the busy Peter the Great as his out-of-town summer palace, and throughout his life the gardens were expanded to lavish proportions. While the palace itself was closed to visitors, the huge upper and lower gardens with hundreds of spurting fountains took several hours to explore. As the terrain included a large bluff the lower gardens boast impressive water jets powered by the hydraulic action of water being piped down the slope towards the Gulf of Finland. The Grand Cascade is a particular highlight with its riot of fountains and golden statues reflecting the sunlight.

The lower gardens also feature a number of ‘trick fountains’ installed by Peter to play practical jokes on his guests, including one disguised as a tree to lure unsuspecting passers-by to shelter under its branches (and then get royally soaked). A nearby park bench also imprisons those who sit on it beneath a curtain of water jetted from behind, which no doubt generated howls of laughter from the monarch and polite laughter from the soaked subjects, if they knew what was good for them.

Dinner back in the city was at an appealing Chinese restaurant. Afterwards we walked to the beautiful Admiralty building and along Nevsky again to catch the minibus back to the hotel. Before bed I watched a bit of Russian football, mainly to deploy my Russian alphabet skills to work out the name of the teams playing: it was Lokomotiv v Spartak, a 2-all draw. At 11pm it was still light outside.


After breakfast we checked out of the Karelia and checked our luggage at the Moscow Station in the city, in preparation for our train journey that afternoon. There was some free time available, so our first stop was the Church of the Spilled Blood, the ostentatious onion-domed house of worship built on the exact spot of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by anarchists in 1881. Inside, its opulent mosaics still dazzle despite the throngs of tourist admirers. During the bitter siege of Leningrad during the Second World War the deconsecrated church served as a potato warehouse and suffered considerable damage.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent wandering the streets of St Petersburg taking a few more photos. We enjoyed a bargain lunch at a pie café Fiona had tracked down, which was a pleasant antidote to the otherwise expensive food on offer in the city. St Petersburg is an expensive place…

Soon it was time to congregate for our train into the heart of Russia. Hoping to stock up with food before we departed, we endured a half-hour queue at an understaffed pizza joint in the Moscow Station – fast food is not an option in Russia, it seems.

Finally we were able to board our 14-carriage train, and after a great deal of organising luggage and swapping seats, we managed to settle into the long journey south-eastwards to our next destination: the historic former capital, Vladimir. After the train departed on time at 5.32pm (why not 5.30pm I wonder?) we played cards as the train pulled us across the map of Russia. Once it finally got dark sometime after 11pm we converted the seats into bunks and turned in for the night. Mine was aligned with the axis of travel and had a bulkhead at each end, and I know it was six feet long because my head and feet touched the walls at each end!

After a middle-of-the-night pause at Moscow to allow passengers to leave the train, we journeyed for several more hours to the east until we reached Vladimir, where we tumbled off the train at 4.53am (yes, it was light then) and onto a waiting coach that whisked us to our accommodation, Hotel Russian Village, where we could shower and grab a few hours of sleep to recover from the unsettled night.


The day turned out to be a cracker, very hot with clear blue skies. The Hotel Russian Village was a great oasis of calm, with its ring of timber cottages surrounding a lake with its own squadron of guard ducks and a selection of inscrutable Russian cats patrolling the perimeter, looking for a sunny spot to doze in.

After our breakfast we headed out across the croplands to nearby Suzdal, another former Russian capital boasting a multitude of onion-domed cathedrals. We enjoyed touring a walled monastery, where we witnessed beautiful mosaic work, a three-man choral group performing in a chapel, and a bell-ringer who set up a concatenating clangour using 16 bells of varying sizes. It was an impressive performance, if not an entirely tuneful one, given that none of the bells were actually designed to be played together: they were collected during the Soviet period from churches across the USSR.

After this interlude we visited a nearby folk museum and enjoyed its displays of traditional Russian timber buildings, including a set of summer and winter churches (the summer ones being prettier, while the winter ones are stockier and warmer inside). Then the others went to soak up the heat in a Russian banya, while the non-heat-seeking remainder rested and chatted in the sun. At our lunch I struggled to cope with the complimentary two shots of vodka that came with the meal. On receiving a double-sized shot glass full of jet fuel, I coped as best I could and eventually succeeded in consuming the firewater with the aid of some juice. I had assumed that the double-sized glass contained both of my vodka shots, but no – there was another one of equal size once I’d finished that. I quickly admitted defeat.

On the hour-long journey back to Vladimir our coach driver was stopped by traffic police twice and had his ID checked, which was an educational glimpse into the prevalence of the authorities in Russia. We stopped at a brand-new hypermarket the size of a couple of aircraft carriers to stock up on snacks and cheap Russian bubbly, and then spent the long evening sitting in the sun playing cards and relaxing. The only interlude was the dinner in the main hall, during which middle-aged local Russians danced up a storm to the polka-themed music. After one woman’s strenuous efforts to get Steve up and shakin’ his thang, we beat a hasty retreat!


We were sad to bid farewell to the Vladimir but in the morning it was time to move on. Our coach took us onwards to Moscow, and in the three hour journey to our hotel we passed several armoured personnel carriers on the motorway. Heavy traffic indeed.

Soon we arrived at the Hotel Vega, a hotel complex of four buildings built for the 1980 Olympics. My room was on the 24th floor, with views over the huge Izmaylovskaya Park (nice) and the railway lines (not so nice). And, wonder of wonders: the TV had BBC World! We checked out the nearby market stalls, which were overloaded with inexpensive knock-offs and souvenirs, then headed into the central city on the nearby Metro (station: Partisanskaya - see below for its impressive statues) for a quick familiarisation tour with Artem.

In a few hours we got our bearings and saw the major sights within a short walking distance of the central city: the imposing Kremlin walls and the guarded eternal flame, the sweeping expanse of Red Square with the mysterious Lenin Mausoleum, the gaudy and iconic (no Russian pun intended) St Basil’s Cathedral, the famous and luxurious GUM department store, and the fearsome Lubyanka, formerly the headquarters of the KGB and now the HQ for the Russian intelligence services.

We dined at the bovine-themed My-My (‘Moo-Moo’) restaurant, and enjoyed their fare, although due to a communication breakdown we assumed that the kebab on offer was simply a skewer of meat rather than a full plate of food. This led to the soon-to-be-famous nickname, Steve “Two Dinners” Cutting…

Soon it was time to head back to the hotel – four stops on the blue line. There was time to watch Barack Obama's Tiergarten speech live from Berlin, and then I played cards with some of the Queenslanders, who were polite enough not to thrash me. I rounded out the night by watching BBC Click Online. Ah, the good old BBC…


The next day the Queenslanders went on an expensive tour to Star City, a centre of the Russian space programme. While we were a little jealous, we decided to save our roubles (it was *really* expensive, mind) and see a few more of the capital’s sights.

After another walk around the middle of town to take pictures, Steve, Fiona and I spent an hour or two soaking up the culture in the famed Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. I particularly enjoyed the selection of classical and later statues and its old masters – the room of Coptic Christian coffin portraits from the early part of the first millennium was spectacular – but I couldn’t find a book of the museum’s collections to buy despite there being several museum shops. (No photography was permitted inside). While this was disappointing, I did have some helpful advice from the elderly man running the bag check-in room, who made certain I was aware (through the international language of mime) that the token should be placed Firmly and Securely Within My Pocket. He was quite emphatic about this. And when Steve went to check his bag in, he got the same instructions. Maybe the chap had heard about my chit-losing exploits at the Azeri restaurant in St Petersburg.

After a walk along the Arbat, Moscow’s old merchant quarter boulevard, Steve and Fiona went on a river cruise to beat the heat, while I decided to make a beeline for the Tretyakov Gallery. In my rather over-heated walk along the riverside I took in the ludicrously large memorial to honour the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s founding of the Russian Navy. While it’s certainly a spectacle, it’s almost too huge to take seriously: it dwarfs everything around it, and looks as if it should collapse at a moment’s notice if the wind got up. In the end, I decided that I liked it because it was quite, quite mad.

I met up with Steve and Fiona again inside the cool air-conditioned halls of the Tretyakov Gallery, which boasts a superb collection of Russian paintings derived from an individual collection gifted to the nation. Aside from umpteen bust statues of Catherine the Great (it seems she spent her reign doing little else than posing for sculptors), and an excellent range of Russian landscapes throughout the years, the most impressive spectacle was ‘Christ Appearing to the People’, a frankly enormous canvass by Alexander Ivanov. And the Tretyakov improved on the Puskhin by offering an excellent art guide, which now sits in pride of place in my notional bookshelf.

Returning to the city centre we passed another Russian marital tradition: the bridge of locks. This short pedestrian bridge has numerous metal trees erected on its thoroughfare. Newly-wed couples bolt a sturdy padlock to the trees to symbolise the eternal security of their love, forming a billowing impromptu sculpture of metal as the locks stack up. (I presume at the end of the summer the city council comes along with a hacksaw to clear space for next year’s newly-weds, but that's not a particularly romantic notion to bring up…)

This provides a useful juncture to detour into the cul-de-sac of Russian women. Having mentioned the beauty of the Swedish variety, and noting the almost universal popularity of Ms Maria Sharapova amongst male tennis fans (okay, amongst males in general), I was interested to see how the womenfolk would scrub up. Suffice it to say, they are often very attractive, but perhaps their beauty is at least partially undermined by a preference for belt-width skirts, ridiculous tottering heels and earrings the size of Saturn’s rings. Anyone familiar with the 1980s stereotype of the Essex girl would recognise the traits, although given the reports that there are perhaps 75 billionaires resident in Moscow, perhaps some of the attire is actually astronomically expensive. As for Russian men? Let’s just say I think they’ve been watching a little too many episodes of Miami Vice.

Rather weary from all our walking and fashion judgementalism, we met up with the Australians and sampled some of the local raspberry wine (!) in a pavilion near the Bolshoi Theatre, before trooping back into Red Square once more for the obligatory night-time photos in Red Square, with the splendid domes of St Basil’s illuminated against the black sky like floating Russian jewels in the night.


The next morning I went shopping in the market with Fiona looking for souvenirs, and picked up a couple of ultra-cheap CDs of dubious provenance (an album by ultra-hip Parisian jazz combo Nouvelle Vague, and the debut album by The Last Shadow Puppets). Then we joined Steve and took the Metro to town for our tour of the Kremlin, the fortress that has been the focus of power in the Russian state for centuries.

The Kremlin itself was an interesting place to visit, and we enjoyed seeing its historic chapels with their solemn iconography, and the brobdingnagian spectacle of the huge Tsar Bell and Tsar Cannon. The Bell is enormous – it weighs 216 tons! – but it was never rung because it cracked only two years after being cast in 1735, when a fire caused a large chunk of the bell to break off.

As it turned out, the Kremlin tour changed from a simple tourist visit into an ordeal of endurance. We had started the tour at midday and planned to be finished by 1.30pm for a late lunch. However, our assigned Kremlin guide, Natalya, had different ideas. She was very knowledgeable about the Kremlin and its history, but proceeded to share this information at great length and minute detail, often pausing to impart some of her heart-felt ethical and religious views with her famished tour group. By 3pm we were exhausted and trying desperately to evade her sermonising, and even when we’d finally said farewell and repaired to a nearby food-court to recover, she turned up in the queue at the same establishment as us!

A brief word about Russian queuing etiquette: there is none. If you can push in without anyone seeing you, or, failing that, without actually being punched, they will push in front of you. Learn to live with it; they're not about to start asking nicely.

After lunch we sat in the Aleksandrovsky park beneath the Kremlin’s walls, along with hundreds of other tourists and locals taking their R&R on a hot summer afternoon. However, we barely had a chance to get settled when a lone policeman approached and asked where we were from, and then asked us to move along. No sitting in the park. This was news to us, and to the hundreds of others minding their own business. We did what everyone else seemed to be doing, which is just to move a hundred metres or so to a different part of the park. The policeman seemed to be trawling for illegal immigrants, or perhaps a juicy tourist he could arrest for some bribeable misdemeanour.

After a bit more tourist photography along the river, we bade farewell to the view of St Basil’s and made our way back to the hotel, where we had an unpretentious dinner in a nearby restaurant and listened to a duo perform Russian folk songs.


On our last morning in Russia I had time to purchase a few stamps from the hotel kiosk, only to realise that they’d charmingly put a 100 percent markup on them. Ah well, that’s the spirit of enterprise for you. We then said farewell to Artem, who had been an excellent guide, and boarded our shuttle to the airport.

Our SAS flight from Moscow stopped off in Copenhagen en route, and on the way in to land I was able to see the remarkable feat of engineering that is the Öresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen to Sweden. I didn’t realise that a portion of the crossing is actually an underwater tunnel. In Copenhagen airport I pondered the effectiveness of its peculiar smoking booths: transparent phonebox-like structures in which those desperate for a fag could light up.

Soon enough we were on our way back to Heathrow, and onto the crowded and hot Piccadilly Line to our respective homes. Our Russian adventure was over, we'd had a fabulous time, and the only conceivable disappointment is that we had failed to hear Boney M's 'Rasputin' being played during our visit. For shame, Russia - what were you thinking?

Many thanks to Steve and Fiona for inviting me along with them!

More photos: St P, Vlad/Suz, Moscow
Culture: t.A.T.u., All The Things She Said
Culture: Boney M, Rasputin
Tourism: Visit Russia
Blog: Steve's report